Hollywood Creatives and Theme Park Fans Appreciate the Universal Difference

It's often been said that if you build a better mouse trap, the world will beat a path to your door.


Well, when Comcast reported its third quarter results last month, it wasn't a mouse trap that turbo-charged that corporation's theme park-earnings. But -- rather -- the successful opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley at the Universal Orlando Resort. Which -- as a direct result of the higher guest attendance and per capita spending that came on the heels of the July 8th opening of this new "land" at Universal Studios Florida -- caused revenue from Comcast's Theme Parks segment to jump 18.7 percent to $786 million compared to $661 million in the third quarter of 2013.

And no one could be more pleased with this development than Tom Williams, Chairman and CEO of Universal Parks & Resorts. Thanks to some very smart additions / strategic moves that the Theme Park segment of Comcast NBCUniversal organization has made over the past five years, guests, their families -- and the entertainment industry -- are now very aware of what Universal can do.

"We've always worked with top talent. It was Steven Spielberg himself who came up with the creative concept for Universal Studios Florida -- which was to create a place where you can ride the movies. Then, he helped us develop cutting-edge attractions that backed up that idea. They included experiences like JAWS!, and the E.T. Adventure and Back to the Future," Williams explained during a recent interview. "But since we created and opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, many more people have seen just what we can do and how collaborative Universal Parks and Resorts can be. All of our guests and much of the entertainment industry saw just how far we were willing to go to create an immersive environment from the world that J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. developed. And that has been helpful, both in terms of growing our business and opening doors to talk with people about potential future projects."


"We've also seen tremendous, enthusiastic, support from the entire Comcast NBCUniversal organization and particularly from Steve Burke and Ron Meyer," Williams said. "We really feel the power of the entire organization behind us as we move forward."

Mind you, not all of the phone calls that Williams has been receiving from would-be collaborators have been coming from outside of Universal.

"One example is Chris Meledandri, the founder and CEO of Illumination Entertainment -- and the creator of the blockbuster Despicable Me film franchise," Williams continued. "Chris came to Universal in 2008. And the first week he was there, called me out of the blue. He said: 'You don't know me, but I would be excited for the chance to work with you in the future. I want to create some great films that I think would make great theme park attractions.' I told Chris, 'That is music to my ears. Bring it on.' "


Now jump ahead to 2012. Where -- on the heels of the enormous success of Despicable Me (This Universal Pictures / Illumination Entertainment production grossed over $500 million worldwide) -- Gru, Edith, Agnes, Margo and the minions made their theme park debut in the Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem simulator ride. And this Universal Studios Florida attraction proved to be so popular with tourists vacationing in Orlando that it was immediately fast-tracked for Universal Studios Hollywood.

"And you know the best part? Chris stayed actively involved with Despicable Me Minion Mayhem. He was at Universal Studios Hollywood to attend the grand opening of the attraction -- walking the red carpet and doing interviews. He also personally helped create the TV commercial we used to promote Minion Mayhem at that park," Williams continued. "If you had told me ten years ago that people like Chris would be involved in helping us create attractions based on their films and that they would attend our grand openings, do interviews with media that supported our business and help us with our TV commercials, I would have said: 'Wake me up. I must be dreaming.' "

Speaking of Hollywood, Universal Creative is once again working with the folks at Warner Bros. -- not to mention Gracie Films (i.e., the production company behind Fox's long running animated series, The Simpsons) -- on an epic transformation of that theme park's Upper Lot area.


"I know -- thanks to Diagon Alley -- that a lot of attention has been focused on Universal Orlando lately. But while we were building the Wizarding World in Florida, we were also investing heavily in our Hollywood theme park," Williams stated. "Just as Comcast was coming on board as NBCUniversal's new owners, we were finishing up King Kong: 360 3-D out there. And that drove such big numbers that we immediately committed to Transformers: The Ride -- 3D and Despicable Me Minion Mayhem for Hollywood."

"And next year we'll be adding two more attractions to Universal Studios Hollywood's entertainment roster. We've got Fast & Furious Supercharged, which is going to be an exciting addition to the theme park's tram tour. And then there is Springfield, which is going to take a lot of the ideas that Universal Creative initially tried out with Universal Studios Florida's Fast Food Boulevard and expand on them," Williams continued. "Then in 2016, we will open the West Coast version of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. And based on the way our Guests have embraced Harry Potter in Florida & Japan, we have huge expectations for Hollywood."

And speaking of huge, how about that $3.3-billion, 300-acre theme park that Universal Parks & Resorts will be building in Beijing. Williams traveled to China earlier this month to officially announce this 13-years-in-the-making project. And to give reporters a hint of what sorts of rides, shows and attractions might be found at Universal Studios Beijing, Tom was joined onstage by the minions from Despicable Me. More to the point, as part of this press conference, a video featuring Steven Spielberg was played where this Academy Award-winning director shared that -- just as he had done with Universal Orlando's theme park -- he'd be serving as a creative consultant on the Beijing project. The park will feature several entertainment experiences that will integrate Chinese traditional and modern cultural elements, not to mention the world's first Universal-themed hotel.


And speaking of hotels, you'd think that -- what with having just wrapped construction of Diagon Alley & the Cabana Bay Beach Resort (not to mention the refresh of CityWalk -- Universal Orlando's retail, dining and entertainment district -- entering its final phase) -- Williams and his team would be willing to rest on their laurels at least for a little while. But given that the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort has already begun construction (This Caribbean-inspired hotel -- Universal Orlando's fifth on-property resort -- is slated to open during the summer of 2016), resting really doesn't seem to be part of the plan that Williams and Comcast NBCUniversal have for Universal Parks & Resorts.

And then there's Islands of Adventure's mystery project. When asked about the project, Williams shared, "You can't expect me to give away all our secrets. Universal Orlando's 25th anniversary is coming up in 2015 and we'd like to have something left to talk about as part of that."

"The world's storytellers -people such as Jo Rowling, Peter Jackson, Michael Bay, James L. Brook, Steven Spielberg and Chris Meledandri -- work with us and are now vey much more aware of what we can do," Williams continued. "They know that we're committed to using cutting-edge technology to bring characters, stories and environments to life in an all-encompassing, very immersive manner. And all of that has been a great conversation -- starter in terms of potential future projects.'"


Of course, the irony here is that -- given that NBCUniversal has been on something of a hot streak lately -- Mark Woodbury (i.e., the President of Universal Creative for Universal Parks & Resorts) and his team doesn't have to look all that far now for compelling fodder for new rides, shows and attractions for the parks. Which explains the "Dracula Untold -- Reign of Blood" haunted house and "The Purge -- Anarchy" & "Face Off -- In the Flesh" scare zones that were featured at this year's Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida.

At the same time, Universal Parks & Resorts is looking to build on previous successes. Which is why -- in late January / early February of next year -- Universal Orlando will be bringing back its "Celebration of Harry Potter" event. The 2015 edition of this three day-long event will feature some additional star power, what with last week's announcement that Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore) and Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid) will be joining the film talent in Q & A sessions.

"We have become a real destination resort now and we create powerful moments for all our guests. We've not only got two theme parks with compelling attractions and great on-site hotels -- but also events such as Mardi Gras and Halloween Horror Nights," Williams concluded. "We find that the more people actually understand and experience what we offer, the more they want to vacation here. That's true with guests who come here for Harry Potter and realize there is so much more. We also want to believe it's true for things like our Grad Bash event. We host tens of thousands of high school graduates and junior high school graduates. These kids look back on their graduation party and remember the great time they had here. Then, perhaps they will want to bring their own families and kids here someday."


So maybe it's not just Hollywood creatives who are newly aware of what Universal Parks & Resorts can do. But a whole new generation of theme park fans who have finally learned to appreciate the Universal difference.